The Ultimate Guide for Smoking Wood

Burning Wood

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In the old days, making all barbecued goods was done using wood logs as a primary heat and smoke source. Mind you, this was before we got a kick out of over-complicating the most menial tasks.

Walk down to your local barbecue store, and you’ll be amazed by how much choice is available. You must choose from the likes of wood pellets, discs, chips, chunks, and even whole logs, and all this is before you decide which 
type of wood you’re going to be using.

When visiting most online sources relevant to these choices, you’ll most likely be overwhelmed with the amount of contradictory information you’ll be greeted with, be it choosing your wood species, the location in which the wood was grown, or everything that falls in between.

All of the mentioned topics will be covered in this article, along with much, 
much, more.

Using Wood for Smoking

To start off, you must note that just about anything can be used to produce smoke when cooking. In fact, the variety is so extensive that some parts of the world use ox feces(!) for this purpose.

We’ll be sticking with wood in this article and showing you two main ways you can use it when barbecuing.

As the primary source of fuel.
 The wood combusting exerts heat energy, while also branding the food with the distinctive smokey flavor we desire. Building your fire with logs in an offset smoker setup is an example of this, along with pellet smokers.


As the source of the smokey flavor. 
This method takes advantage of the wood for the smoke it produces only, effectively discarding the heat energy it can give. It uses another source of energy for heat, such as gas or charcoal. Examples of such a setup include placing wood chips inside your electric smoker, or adding wood chunks to burning coals.


The wood you use to add a smokey flavor to your meats comes in various shapes and sizes, such as sawdust, pellets, chips, chunks, or even logs. The one you should choose depends on the situation and even personal preference. For example, many pitmasters use wood chips when smoking as they are so easy to handle, both in terms of smoking and portion control.

Burning Wood Chunks

A Brief Rundown of Smoke

In itself, smoke consists of roughly one hundred compounds. Some exist as solids, some liquids, such as oil, and others as gases. The exact composition of the smoke you produce will depend mainly on the wood species you have chosen, the temperature at which the wood is combusting, and the oxygen and humidity levels, respectively.

Two gases that are worth noting are syringol and guaiacol. These two have two critical roles in regards to the finished product you get from smoking meat. Syringol is responsible for the smokey aroma we get when smoking woods, whereas guaiacol gives us the distinctive smokey flavor we so desire. These gases do all the work in terms of branding your smoked goods with the defined connection between the smokey flavors and aromas.

I will now list the key points to remember about the smoking of wood.

Dehydration. this occurs just before the wood actually catches alight, synonymously meaning at or below 500°F.

Gasification. This step in the process takes place when the wood is at any temperature between 500°F and 700°F. The actual compounds of the wood begin to be altered at this point. Some become flammable gases, aiding the wood in catching alight (as it will not do so on its own at this point). In layman’s terms, this is when the wood ‘catches fire.’

Burning. T
his is when the real catching alight part occurs; somewhere between 700°F and 1000°F. The wood is independently on fire, and essential gases for the cooking process are exerted. One of these is nitric oxide, the gas responsible for the creating of a smoke ring.

As far as tasty smoke is concerned, your meat will fare best if it is within a temperature range of 650°F to 750°F. As the intensity of the heat increases, the compounds turn bitter, and in some cases, hazardous.

And, finally, as the gases are released from the fuel, they would ignite as they combine with oxygen, given enough heat. If gases escape without burning, smoke is created.

Continuing above 1000°F will produce charcoal; most organic compounds are lost in flames leading up to this. Not much smoke is produced from the burning of charcoal.

Smokey Barbecue

How Long Should You Maintain Smoke Production when Cooking?

When scouring through the web for information about smoking wood, you may find a bizarre idea popping up here and there that meat stops taking on smoke after you reach a certain point – but the fact is, that idea simply isn’t true. The meat will continue to absorb smoke for as long as there is smoke to absorb, given the right conditions.

However, the variable that does change is the environment inside the cooker and surface of your meat.

Most of the time, smoke will stick to the surface layer of your meat if it is cool and moist. As the cooking progresses, the meat will get warmer and dry up, rendering it impossible to absorb any more smoke. This process can be negated by spraying and basting the meat throughout the cooking process.

Keep in mind, however, that going overboard on the water spraying could wash off any dry rubs or sauces you applied beforehand. 

Also note that charcoal won’t produce nearly as much smoke as wood, so you may want to add more wood to the fire as you progress for additional smoke. Be mindful of creating too much smoke; you don’t want your food to end up tasting like a lump of coal when all is done!

Chips:
 

  • Usually 1/4 inch thick, 1-inch width/length
 
  • Primarily used for gas and electric, but also works with charcoal
 
  • Chips are readily available, easy to store, and produce smoke quickly
 
  • No need to soak prior to using.

 

 

Wood Chips

Pellets:
 

  • Sawdust that has been compressed to a size similar to that of chicken feed
 
  • Best suited for pellet smokers, under-grate smoke boxes and smoke generators
 
  • Highly convenient, quick to form smoke
 
  • Do not soak these under any circumstance; they will disintegrate.

 

 

Wood Pellets

 Logs:

  • Can be up to 18 inches long
 
  • Useful in large offset smokers and commercial smokers & grills
 
  • Can be used to exert both heat energy and smoke
 
  • Take considerably longer to burn than most items on our list; definitely best suited for bigger smokers.

 

 

Wood Logs

Sawdust: 

  • Wood that’s been ground up into a very coarse powder
 
  • Electric, handheld and stovetop smokers; generally for any small related appliance
 
  • Instant smoke forming
 
  • Can’t be used as a heat source – smoke producer only.
 

 

 

Sawdust

Chunks:

 

 

  • Wood chunks up to 4 inches in length; close to the size of an average fist
 
  • Best suited for small offset smokers, gas smokers, barrel smokers, gas grills
 
  • Can be used in a wide range of grills and smokers, and is readily available/easy to store, much like wood chips
 
  • No need in soaking before you barbecue; when using a Weber Smokey Mountain, these are probably the best smoke source available. 

 

 

Weber Wood Chunks

Disks:

 

 

  • Sawdust, compressed into a disk-like shape
 
  • Best suited for electric smokers
 
  • Convenient to use, and produces smoke quite rapidly
 
  • Never soak these; much like all the other sawdust-based products in this list, they will disintegrate if soaked. 

 

 

Sawdust Smoking Disks

Adding the Wood to your Smoker

In most cases, a reasonably small, but hot fire that burns at a constant rate will produce the best smoke for smoking your wood. It may well be tempting to build a bonfire-esque setup in your smoker, but you must resist this urge and create something rather minuscule. This is because lighting up your entire fuel reserve all at once will yield subpar results. Trust me. Don’t go there.

How much wood you’ll be adding to the fire, as well as when you should add this wood will depend on the type of smoker you’re using, and whether or not your primary heat source is wood.

For instance, when cooking on a Weber Smokey Mountain, wood is most definitely not the primary source of heat. In our example, two to four fist-sized wood chunks should be just enough to create the required amount of smoke.

If, like in this example, wood is not your primary heat source, many pitmasters and other grilling experts suggest adding the wood chunks to the coals only once the coals are lit, as this is the simplest way to begin smoke production. To grant yourself an even quicker start, ensure the wood chunks are in direct contact with the hot coals; you can make this contact via either burying the wood chunks in unlit coals, whereas others layer coals and wood chips and only then light the coals.

When using offset smokers, on the other hand, wood is your primary heat source. In this case, the amount of wood you use will depend on the size of your grill; once again, create a fire that will burn at considerably high temperatures, and do so consistently.

Choosing 'Good Combinations' of Food and Wood Type

There are many guides and informational content articles out on the web that outline the rough flavor profiles of each wood type, and how these differ from one another. Additionally, these guides often coincide this information with the kinds of meat they should be matched with, which is where things get slightly questionable, to say the least.

To clarify, I objectively disagree with almost all arguments of matching wood species with meat kinds. This obsession that is shared by so many amateurs and pitmasters alike is uncalled for. In actuality, the location in which a tree has been grown is likely to affect the flavor much more than the type of tree in question. For instance, Hickory grown in New York is going to be much closer in taste to Applewood grown right next to it than it is to Hickory from somewhere else in the country, as described here, in the Forest Encyclopedia.

I will say this – all those infographics that tell consumers which wood goes best with which meat do wonders for advertising! That’s about where it ends, though; with marketing and advertising. While it is true that some kinds of wood have a different, more distinct flavor, pairing those individual flavors with varying types of meat is of little to no importance, and the type of wood you use should be based on the flavor which the wood itself imparts. Generally speaking, statements like ‘this goes well with mesquite’ or ‘only smoke these ribs with pecan’ can be (almost) completely disregarded.

The point I’m trying to make is, learning new techniques and ways to widen your skillset when it comes to smoking will do you a much more valuable service than reading charts about ‘The Best Meat/Wood Combinations.’

fire, carbon, barbecue

Best Wood Types for Smoking

Unlike the previous topic, the choice of the wood type itself does, in all seriousness, play a valuable part in the end result of your dish tasting the way it should.

The main factors you must take into consideration before choosing the wood species you’d like to use are as follows:

  • If left to dry for about six months, the wood is at a perfect state to be used on your barbecue. This is mostly in thanks to the remaining moisture in wood that has been drying for this long; it is perfect for creating smoke, without being overly sappy.
 
  • Keep in mind that store-bought woods will most often burn hot and fast due to a process known as kiln drying. The kiln is where they dry the logs, in this case, hence the name. This ‘hot-and-fast’ nature may prove to be troublesome when trying to control temperatures and cooking lengths.
 
  • Another advantage granted by using wood that has been dried for roughly six months (thus still having some moisture left within it) is that the wood will be able to burn slower, at a lower heat. This is excellent when aiming for a ‘low and slow’ cooking process.
 
Even though some evidence shows that the idea of different woods producing different flavors is mostly barbecuing lore and mythology, a few rules of thumb still exist that I believe almost anyone should follow when choosing what wood species they’d like to use.

Mesquite – A strong-flavored wood, burns hot and fast, produces mass amounts of smoke.
 
Fruit Woods – Mildly flavored.
 
Pecan – Sort of like a sweeter variant of mesquite in terms of flavor; best used for shorter smokes.
 
Oak – Mild in flavor; burns slowly and consistently; an excellent all-rounder option; when in doubt, use oak.
 
Hickory – Somewhere in between oak and mesquite in terms of flavor intensity; another great general option when smoking wood.
Wood Logs Variety

WORST Wood Types for Smoking (Don't Try These!)

Below we have listed some wood types and conditions that anyone in the right mind should absolutely never try.

These are:

  • Pine
 
  • Cypress (coniferous tree)
 
  • Elderberry
 
  • Redwood
 
  • Yew
 
  • Laburnum
 
  • Poisonous Walnut (only the poisonous variant is bad)
 
  • Sweet Gum
 
  • Tamarack
 
  • Fir
 
  • Oleander
 
  • Sycamore
 
  • Elm
 
  • Eucalyptus
 
  • Liquidambar
 
  • Tambootie
 
  • Hemlock
 
  • Mangrove
 
  • Cedar
 
  • Aspect
 
  • Locust
 
As well as:
 
  • Any wood that has been painted or treated
 
  • Old pellets (may have been exposed to chemicals)
 
  • Lumbar scraps (unknown wood type in most cases)
 
  • Wood that has fungus or mold
 
And also, Pretty much any softwood. Softwoods are usually very sappy, which can be dangerous – people often report falling ill from smoking with sappy woods.

Elm Tree - Softwood Example

Tricks to Creating a Smoke Ring

A smoke ring is an aesthetic artifact that, in recent years, has become synonymous with mastery of the art of smoking. Notice I said ‘aesthetic.’ While a smoke ring is highly desirable, it will not change the flavor produced in any way.

To create this effect, you must start with cold meat, as this will ensure a considerably high moisture level throughout the cooking process. Spraying your meat with water will help achieve this, as well as keeping a water pan inside your cooker during the entirety of the smoking process. Additionally, apply a dry spice rub before starting to cook. All of the above help smoke stick to your meat, and the spice rub specifically will add flavor to it as well.


Be sure to add your smoking wood early on, while your meat is still at a reasonably cool temperature. This period of the cooking process is when the meat can absorb the most smokey flavor without your physical intervention. While keeping in mind what I said about adding the wood early, you must still make sure that fire burns hot, and that the coals are no longer smoking prior to this.

Smoke Ring Example

Mixing Wood Types for Flavor

As I explained earlier in this article, many people get far too hung up and even obsessed with what type of wood they should use when smoking. This confusion, in turn, leads to even further uncertainty when talking about which types of wood go well with each other.

For the sake of simplicity, it’s generally a good idea to stick with one kind of wood at a time, and instead experimenting with which type of wood you’ll use every time you make that same dish. By doing this, you will develop a far more intricate understanding of each wood species’ flavor profile, allowing you to later experiment with different flavors based on your taste, rather than the internet’s.

Top Tips for Smoking with Wood

The next couple of tips, tricks & hacks should give you a more concrete understanding of how to smoke wood, or more specifically, how to do this wellwith little effort when compared to other guides out there. Our suggestions have been thoroughly examined and trusted by many pitmasters and experts, but this isn’t ruling out your own experimentation and creativity.

  • Trust your senses – your smoke must almost always have a sweet aroma, and you should be able to get a waft of the spices or rubs you may have used should very easily. If something smells like it’s burning, it most likely is. Don’t mistake the sweet aroma of clean wood smoke with that of burning pork ribs. You’ll regret it.
 
  • Drain moisture (and dry!) unused soaked wood chips – If you’ve decided to venture the path of wood soaking, draining & drying your remaining chips is essential. If you don’t do this, the chips will lose their flavor rapidly and be rendered useless to anyone who wants their smoked goods to have taste. 
 
  • Control your airflow – Don’t mistake a thick layer of soot that covers your meat’s entirety to be a good smoking result; this is the outcome of burning your coals with insufficient oxygen. If you do experience this scenario, it’s not the end of the world, as soot can be washed off your meat, and you’re able to try again very quickly. Before placing your meat back inside your cooker, however, ensure that this time you have your airflow correctly set up. Impartial combustion caused by a lack of oxygen will produce what we call ‘dirty smoke.’ This smoke will appear white in color and is caused by the charcoal rather than the wood itself. Another useful tip relating to this issue is removing the ash in the fire, as this can partially smother the coals’ burning, giving you the same, sooty outcome.
Burning Wood Log
  • Make sure you’re smoking the wood – This one may seem like a no-brainer to most of you. However, you’ll soon realize why this is such an essential pointer to anyone starting out their journey in smoking wood. When first starting out, I can guarantee you many former-amateurs found themselves in utter confusion and disbelief when they smoke their favorite cut of meat with renowned woods such as pecan or Applewood, only to find that the sweet, aromatic result they were promised has instead been replaced with a questionable, bitter taste that follows constant clouds of white smoke coming out of their cooker. The reason for such an undesirable outcome is the mistaking of charcoal smoke for wood smoke; properly-smoked wood will give off thin, clean smoke that is dark in color and sweet in aroma, as described previously. If, however, you find yourself looking at thick, white clouds of smoke, you’re smoking your coals, not your wood, due to incomplete combustion. This, once again, relates to airflow, explained in the previous tip. Don’t be afraid to light your wood on fire completely – fear of that is often where this outcome originates. 
 
  • Never use wood that smells bad – If you have wood that has a musty or generally rancid smell, don’t make the mistake of presuming it’ll just fade away after smoking – because it won’t. In fact, it’s not only going to be the smell; woods that smell weird produce smoke that tastes weird, and this is the last thing you want for you smoked goods. Not only that, but wood that is moldy or that has been exposed to chemicals causing it to smell the way it does may even be lethal, so messing around with questionably-scented timber isn’t a very bright idea, to say the least.
 
  • Storing your wood – It is a good idea to store your timber outside. Doing so will be of great use to you, in the sense that it allows you to dry your wood slightly. If you choose to do this, make sure to store the wood on a rack, preferably at least a few inches off the ground. This ensures that your wood doesn’t get moldy, damp, rotted out, and keeps it out of reach of termites, which often prove to be problematic little critters in regards to this subject matter.
 
  • Use indirect cooking for longer smokes – Indirect cooking refers to using a heat source that isn’t placed directly underneath the food that’s being cooked. In the case of smoking, this may even be done in a different food chamber altogether. For more info on indirect cooking or grilling, visit our article here.
Smoked Food

Conclusion

While wood is an essential part of barbecuing as a whole, it needn’t be the frightening subject matter that intimidates so many people, particularly those who are just starting out in their grilling or smoking journeys. 

Once you’ve been informed of and learned the basics of wood burning, wood smoking, what smoke is & what use it has to us, as well as what types of wood are available, all that’s left is for you to go off on your own and experiment will all these ideas as you see fit! Be creative, trust your senses and intuition, and, most importantly, remember to have fun!

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